The Goroka, Papua New Guinea. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
Putting aside a successful career, British photographer Jimmy Nelson embarked on a treacherous, lengthy journey to document the last remaining indigenous people of the world. From the thick, wet Amazon rain forests of Ecuador to the frigid tundras of Siberia, Nelson sought out and spent significant time with each native culture, grasping a genuine understanding of their lives and traditions. Shot with a 50-year-old plate film camera, Before They Pass Away is a poignant chronicle of heritage and humanity that threatens to be lost forever. His energy an absolute contagious source of inspiration, we recently spoke with Nelson about his life and work.
The Huaorani, Ecuador. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
You were a self-described “expat kid” growing up. Do you feel your childhood helped lead you on this worldwide journey in some ways?
“For as long as I can remember, I have traveled the world. My father worked for a major oil company and by the time I was seven, I had seen more countries than most people get to visit in a lifetime. Thereafter I traveled back and forth to boarding school in the UK from all corners of the world. You can imagine that from a very early age I was made aware of the rapid cultural changes happening around the world.
“At the age of 16 I lost all my hair due to the accidental use of the wrong medicine. This event changed me not only aesthetically, but also personally—I felt different from everyone else due to my new appearance. Soon after, I decided to abandon my plans to go to university and instead disappear on a year’s journey to “find myself.” I traveled the length of Tibet by foot and on my return the amateurish photo diary that I made was published. This was the start of my career as a photographer.”
The Rabari, India. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
Before They Pass Away captures a universal humanity that is quite powerful. What characteristics and values carry over regardless of location, ideology and culture?
“There is a pure beauty in their goals and family ties, their belief in gods and nature, and their will to do the right thing in order to be taken care of when their time comes. They know what makes them happy and they choose to live that life.”
The Asaro, Papua New Guinea. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
How rapidly are these various tribes disappearing? Tell us about your mission to preserve them photographically.
“If we could start a global movement that documents and shares images, thoughts and stories about tribal life both old and new, perhaps we could save part of our world’s precious cultural heritage from vanishing. We must work to let them coexist in these modern times by supporting their cause, respecting their habitats, recording their pride, and helping them to pass on their traditions to generations to come.
“I want to show these tribes that they are already rich, that they have something that money can’t buy. I would like to demonstrate to them that the Western modern society is not as pure and inspiring as their own culture and values and therefore it is not something to necessarily aspire to.
“Even though I am aware that my photographic document will not be able to prevent the eventual disappearance of the tribes, I strongly hope that it adds to the realization that by respecting their natural habitat and way of life, we are able to stretch it as long as possible. I strive to create a visual document that reminds us, and the generations after us, of the beauty of pure and honest living.”
The Mursi, Ethiopia. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
Could you share any moments that deeply impacted you on your journey?
“There is one particular story of a tough moment for me as a photographer. There is a photo of three native Kazakh men from Mongolia with eagles on their shoulders on a mountain. That picture took three days to make, because each morning there wasn’t enough light. On the fourth morning, it was about minus 20 degrees on top of the mountain and the light was beautiful. I took off my gloves to take the photo and they literally froze to the camera.
“I began crying and when I turned my head I saw that two women had followed us to the top of the mountain. One of them took my fingers and cradled them in her jacket until I got the feeling back and was able to take a couple of photographs. What I didn’t know was that these women are actually strict Sunni Muslims, and broke all codes of modesty in order to aid me. They had noticed my desperation and did what they could to help me achieve what I was there for.”
Gauchos, Argentina. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
The Himba, Namibia. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
The Huli, Papua New Guinea. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
The Ladakhi, India. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
The Kazakh, Mongolia. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
The Kalam, Papua New Guinea. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
The Maori, New Zealand. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.
The Vanuatu, Vanuatu Islands. © Jimmy Nelson BV Courtesy teNeues.